MINNEAPOLIS — It had to get worse before it got better for Kent Hrbek.
He had to embarrass himself on the bases, as well as at bat again, before suddenly and dramatically excising the festering likelihood that he would always be synonymous with horns--as in World Series goat.
He removed the onus with one swing, smashing a grand slam in the sixth inning Saturday, turning a 6-5 lead into 10-5 and propelling the Minnesota Twins to an 11-5 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, tying the World Series at three games apiece.
A Metrodome crowd of 55,393 reacted to the 439-foot drive to center field by blowing the needle off ABC-TV's decibel meter, but Hrbek said later he didn't even hear them. He is a hometown boy who has been through the good, the bad and the ugly here. He was 4 for 20 in the Series and 7 for 40 in 11 postseason games when he connected off Ken Dayley, blowing the lid off his own emotions.
He shook his right fist and raised both arms exultantly as he toured the bases, saying later that if he had even lowered one flap, a la Jeffrey Leonard, he'd have crashed.
"I wish I could have run around the bases twice instead of once," he said. "People talk about thrills in the big leagues . . . just making the big leagues was one and hitting a home run in my first game at New York was another, but this was indescribable.
"I mean, the way I reacted was just the culmination of everything . . . the fact that it's the World Series, the way I've been struggling, having my family here to see it, being from this area, the way the fans have been behind us. Everything came out."
The culmination comes in Game 7 tonight, and Hrbek believes that the attendance will be a bit larger than what is announced. He is certain that his late father will be watching, that he was with him as he circled the bases. The poignant story of Ed Hrbek's loyalty to his son, of his determination to see as many games as he could during his long fight with Lou Gehrig's disease and ultimate death in 1982, has been chronicled.
"I've always tried to block that out of my mind during a game because it's so hard to deal with," Hrbek said quietly, sitting at his locker Saturday.
"But I thought about Dad when I was in the on-deck circle before hitting the home run and I don't know if I've ever done that before. I know he'll be here tomorrow. I know he'll have one of the best seats, though he may not be able to see through the roof."
Hrbek smiled, at peace with the memories. Has he been at peace with himself? Has he been able to cope with his offensive struggle?
"Kent Hrbek is not the Minnesota Twins," he said. "There are 23 other guys. It's been frustrating, sure, but you try to put it out of your mind. In fact, I'd say I've been as relaxed as I could be. I was more nervous opening night than any time since. It's tough when you're struggling, but I haven't been swinging badly or swinging at bad pitches. I've been following (Manager) Tom Kelly's advice to have fun and enjoy this.
"It's my wife who's been driving me nuts. . . . She's been taking it tougher than I have. She tosses and turns all night. I try to tell her to relax, to have fun, but Tom's advice has worked better for us than for her."
Hrbek said he made eye contact with Jeanie Hrbek while he was circling the bases, and she seemed to be having fun.
So were the other 21 relatives and friends for whom he bought tickets, saying he could have made it 10,000.
Some are content to wait, knowing they will eventually get the chance to share this experience with Hrbek, a 17th-round draft choice of the Twins in 1978, a pitcher-first baseman then out of Kennedy High in nearby Bloomington.
Wade Boelter, for instance, has told his former batterymate that they will go sit on the mound at Kennedy and pop a bottle of champagne when this is over.
Hrbek, who hit 34 homers and drove in 90 runs during the regular season, was 0 for 3, having stranded three runners when he hit his slam. He had reached second in the second inning when Willie McGee dropped his drive to the fence in right center.
Hrbek said it was a mistake not to have been running hard and to have reached third on it. He then compounded it by getting picked off on a throw from John Tudor to second baseman Tom Herr. "I was paying attention to Ozzie Smith and never saw Herr," he said. "We got two hits after that and I sat there the whole game thinking that if we lost by a run it would be my fault."
The slam represented redemption--for the mistakes, for the frustration of his slump and "all the bats and helmets I had thrown trying to let out some of my emotions."
There were two on with one out when the Cardinals walked Don Baylor intentionally to load the bases, after which southpaw Ken Dayley was summoned to face Hrbek.
Dayley had not allowed a home run to a left-handed hitter since Oct. 1, 1985. Hrbek had hit only six homers against left-handers this year and was 0 for 3 against Dayley in the Series.